J. Henry Fair
For many years, John Corigliano avoided calling his symphonic works “symphonies.” He broke that rule in 1988 with his Symphony No. 1, in memory of friends and colleagues who had died of AIDS.
Courtesy Grant Park Music Festival
Are poetic, evocative titles replacing more traditional, numbered names for symphonic works?
At the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park this August, the Grant Park Music Festival premiered Michael Gandolfi’s The Cosmic Garden in Bloom, the latest installment of a multi-part work inspired by Charles Jencks’s actual garden in Scotland. From left: Gandolfi, Grant Park Orchestra Principal Conductor Carlos Kalmar, and Grant Park Chorus Director Christopher Bell.
by Matthew Guerrieri
1988 was a good year for symphonies. It was the year John Corigliano wrote his Symphony No. 1, a memorial to three friends who had died of AIDS—a work that, in scope and emotional heft, exemplified the form’s capacity for grand, public statement. It was also the year hip-hop producer Marley Marl released his first album, In Control, Volume 1, which included one of the first and still best posse cuts, a track featuring multiple rappers: Masta Ace, Kool G Rap, Craig G, and Big Daddy Kane. Four movements unified into an ambitious whole: with good reason, Marl titled the track “The Symphony.” The two symphonies represent two extremes of what is, admittedly, a lesser aspect of the form, but a engrossing one: the title itself. Corigliano, compositionally aligned with the symphony orchestra, had nevertheless, for his entire career, avoided calling his symphonic works “symphonies,” rejecting what he considered their weighty aura; but, in this case, the word’s status lent gravity to the work’s serious intent. Marley Marl, in contrast, appropriated that gravity with equal parts cheek and bravado, the colliding worlds summed up in the track’s motivic handoff from MC to MC, each rapper finishing his verse by exhorting the next with the same refrain: Light up the mic for the symphony. One wonders if Marl would use the word “symphony” as his title today. To peruse the newer repertoire being premiered and performed by American orchestras is to leave aside such formal titles and visit realms of evocative images, programmatic scene-setting, and eye-grabbing vividness. This season, the Las Vegas Philharmonic will premiere the orsymphony